Sat, Aug 04, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Water management lessons from Europe

Government officials in the UK insist they have learned from the recent floods across central and northern England, but it is in Europe where the real lessons can be found

By Alan Simpson  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

After two months of torrential downpours, Britain still seems mesmerized by the floods that have swept the country. But all government ministers seem able to say, with conviction, is that "lessons will be learned." The question is, which ones?

Some 150,000 people in Gloucester, in central England, have learned to line up for water.

The UK Environment Agency has learned that its mobile flood defense barriers are not much use when stuck on trucks marooned in the floods. Power companies have learned that their sub-stations do not work well under water, milkmen that their delivery vans do not and the National Audit Office that fewer than half of Britain's cities have drainage and flood protection systems in decent working order.

Ministers accept that Britain has 4.3 million people living in flood-risk areas, that a third of the area earmarked for new housing development is on floodplain land and that some ?240 billion (US$489 billion) worth of housing and economic assets is vulnerable to flooding, but that does not mean anything will change.

When the floods began in Yorkshire, in the north of England, I made a suggestion during the prime minister's question time in the House of Commons that property developers should be made liable for flood damage during the first 20 years of a property's life.

First stunned, then indignant, the construction industry insisted that this would be unfair and economically ruinous.

It would make UK home construction unaffordable, they say -- as though the ?4 billion of flood damage somehow was affordable.

We live in a culture in which developers and the construction industry are allowed to plunder the present, leaving everyone else to pay for tomorrow's mess.

The Association of British Insurers has reported that storm and flood damage in the UK doubled to more than ?6 billion between 1998 and 2003. The association's fear is that if London is hit, the flood damage could cost ?40 billion. Development plans for the Thames Gateway, where 91 percent of new homes are planned for the floodplain, only add to the sense of impending doom.

The central issue, however, is not how we pay the bills for the upheavals climate change is bringing. Rather, it is to ask how we avoid the damage in the first place.

We need a minor revolution in the relationship between government and the man-made environment. Britain sits on a wonderful legacy of Victorian drains and sewers. Unfortunately, we also sit on a backlog of underinvestment in their repair and renewal.

Faced with similar problems, mainland Europe has taken a much more interventionist approach to planning powers and obligations. In four of the main German regions, much tougher planning laws have been set. A planning application will not even be looked at if it does not include reservoir facilities in its foundations. The logic is simple: If soak-away land is going to be removed, its water holding capacity must be replaced on site.

German local authorities can also specify that rainwater harvesting and recycling must be incorporated as design features for all new buildings. This is a provision as relevant to drought as to flood.

The Dutch are doing things on an even larger scale. Some 60 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level and the nation faces the combined threat of encroachment from the sea and of flooding from any of the three major European rivers that run through the delta of the country.

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